Illustrations: Pete Ryan

The Rescue Mission to Save Civilization From the Big Melt

Ice patch archeologists are racing against the clock to find ancient artifacts dislodged by climate change

ItIt is like looking at something from another planet. The mystery tools are both about five inches long, bleached a pale gray with age and the effects of the weather. They were found just over a month ago, lying on icy ground high in the mountains of Norway. For roughly a thousand years they lay trapped in layers of ice. But now they have melted out.

“We have no idea what they are,” says Julian Robert Post-Melbye, a member of the archaeological team that found the objects and an archaeologist at the University of Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History. Did they once help fix horse-riding equipment in place? Maybe they were used to shape a specific substance or material. “We just call them ‘wrenches’” Post-Melbye says, “because they look, you know, like wrenches.”

I have come here, to the mountain village of Fossbergom in central Norway, to see these and other objects recently dislodged from the ice. Fossbergom is located in Lom, a municipality with fewer than 2,500 residents, surrounded by three huge national parks crammed with mountains, valleys, and ice. The ice, however, is melting at a quickening rate, and over the past two decades archaeologists have found that more artifacts are appearing — so many they can hardly keep up.

These objects are the fruits of a field known as “glacial archeology” or “ice patch archaeology.” As the world has warmed, melting ice in mountain regions of Norway, Mongolia, and other sub-Arctic nations, as well as Alaska, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, and the Canadian Yukon, has yielded a growing bounty of exceptionally well-preserved items left behind by Viking hunters, ancient warriors, and long-forgotten travelers — scattered fragments that reveal the technological prowess of departed civilizations.

The ice is melting at a quickening rate, and over the past two decades archaeologists have found that more artifacts are appearing — so many they can hardly keep up.

The artifacts that the archaeologists show me in Lom are the very latest finds, recovered in recent days. On one table there is an arrow shaft with string and some feathers; the fletching is still intact and it is about 1,500 years old. There are arrowheads too — one is carved beautifully from what is almost certainly antler bone. A separate arrow shaft dates back to the Stone Age, perhaps shot at a target, probably a reindeer, some 4,000 years ago. The arrow lay on the mountainside and was covered in snow, where it stayed, untouched and locked in ice — until now.

TThe Norwegians are masters of ice patch archaeology. Brit Solli, a professor of archaeology at the Museum of Cultural History, estimates that she and her colleagues have now cataloged between 3,500 and 4,000 individual artifacts, all scavenged from melting ice within the past 15 years. The museum’s quickly growing collection — from an exquisitely preserved Iron Age tunic to some of the earliest examples of skis in the world — spans a roughly 5,000-year history. It has dramatically transformed our understanding of the people who lived, hunted, and traded in this region, including Vikings.

Typically, objects near the surface of glaciers or retreating ice patches will absorb heat from sunlight, helping to melt the ice around them. They might slide or drop out of the ice and wash away some distance with the help of flowing water or rain. Many of the artifacts collected by archaeologists have been discovered just sitting on the ground, waiting to be picked up. (Occasionally, objects only partially melt free and can be encouraged out of the ice with a little warm water.)

Ice patch archeology is being practiced around the world — notably in the Alps, Mongolia, Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, and the Canadian Yukon. In all of these places, ancient ice is melting with remarkable speed due to climate change: A 10,000-year-old spear was found in the Rockies just a decade ago, thousand-year-old arrow shafts were discovered in the Yukon, and the amount of woolly mammoth ivory melting out of permafrost in Russia has led to an ivory “gold rush.” (Arguably the most spectacular ice-find of all time was the mummified remains of a 5,300-year-old man nicknamed Ötzi, found in the Italian Alps in 1991.)

Ice patch archaeology is both a portal into the past and a battle against time. Artifacts that melt out of the ice are very fragile; textiles and soft organic material, frozen in time for so long, are quickly destroyed once exposed to the elements. For all the fascination over what has been found, there is the uncomfortable realization that so much must have already melted out and disintegrated without anyone ever knowing.

Ice patch archaeology is both a portal into the past and a battle against time. The more the ice melts, the deeper we delve back into the past.

It’s a thought that plagues Craig Lee, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder — the researcher who found the 10,000-year-old spear in the Rockies. “I guess the word that sprang to mind,” he says, when I ask him about this via phone, “was ‘incalculable’ loss.”

The archaeologists in Norway refer to their work sometimes as a “rescue” mission — someone needs to gather and preserve these artifacts before they crumble to dust. While showing me the fletching on the 1,500-year-old arrow shaft, Post-Melbye points to the loops of string used to tie it fast. “These will dry very quickly in the sun,” he says. “They’ll just crack up and blow away.”

TThe term “glacial archaeology” was coined in a Norwegian student newspaper in 1968, but it wasn’t until 2014 that the field gained a dedicated scientific publication, the Journal of Glacial Archaeology. In the publication’s inaugural article, the authors presented data on glacier retreat across the globe and argued that ice patch archaeology had become an urgent business: “Climate models suggest that in the next decades many sites will be lost to melting and decay. Consequently, it is imperative to extend the geographic scope of this research now.” One 2008 paper estimated that in Norway, 98% of glaciers would disappear by the end of the current century. That leaves just eight decades until those glaciers are gone, taking with them innumerable artifacts left behind by human ancestors.

The same urgency was picked up in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report on the Earth’s ice and ocean environments, which was published in September. On the subject of mountain ice, the assessment does not provide much comfort: “Snow cover, glaciers, and permafrost are projected to continue to decline in almost all regions throughout the 21st century.”

It’s a picture matched by recent events. On the same day the IPCC released its report, news broke that 250,000 cubic meters of ice were at risk of collapsing at a glacier on Mont Blanc in Italy. Glaciers in the region have been shrinking thanks to the effects of global warming for many years. In Sweden, the highest mountain in the country was demoted to the second-highest after ice on its peak melted drastically last summer. The IPCC report’s chapter on mountain areas even includes a reference to ice patch archaeology — including the fact that melting ice puts artifacts at risk of destruction.

In Norway, there is little that can be done to save artifacts from this process. In one spot, the park guides sometimes place a blanket over the ice to insulate it and protect it from the worst of the summer heat. But, as Lars Holger Pilø, a member of the research team, put it in an email to me: “The problem of melting ice is simply too enormous to be addressed by blankets.”

Pilø and his colleague Espen Finstad, both of Oppland County Council’s Department of Cultural Heritage, lead the archaeological work in Lom. They organize ice patch surveys in the mountains every summer, but the team must wait until August to find out what conditions will meet them up here — it is devilishly difficult to predict how much ice will actually melt each season. Earlier in the summer, temperatures in Norway weren’t abnormally warm, but then in late July, a heatwave hit northern Europe, causing the month to become the hottest, globally speaking, on record. That means extra work for Finstad’s team, as they rush to find priceless treasures.

When I meet with them one Sunday afternoon, Finstad and his colleagues have just returned from three nights in the mountains. Fresh from the hillsides, Finstad’s hair is wind-tossed and his trousers are still flecked with mud. The log fire in Lom’s Mountain Museum crackles as he tells me of the exceptional finds he and his colleagues have already made this year. Many were scattered across a 300,000-square-meter area in Breheimen National Park. Besides the mysterious wrenches, other finds include a snowshoe for a horse, the sort of device that the team knew once existed but had never seen intact. There were also jawbones of a dead dog, still with its collar, and the hoofs of a horse, likely a thousand years old, still with the metal shoes attached.

Artifacts found by Lars Holger Pilø, Espen Finstad, and the archeological team during their expedition in Lom, including the mysterious “wrenches” on the bottom left. (Espen Finstad and Secrets of the Ice / Chris Baraniuk)

It was so beautiful, just lying there in the ice” says Finstad, remembering the moment he saw the horse snowshoe for the first time. “You try to imagine what happened to this horse,” says Finstad. “It’s obvious it died there. Was it rough terrain? Did it break a leg?” As excited as Finstad and his colleagues are to discover amazingly well-preserved artifacts every year, they all acknowledge that the work is bittersweet. “It’s not like we’re walking in parades, oh hooray, we’re finding lots of stuff,” says Solli.

Some Norwegian ice discoveries predate Finstad and his colleagues’ efforts: A number of arrows were recovered during hot summers in the 1930s, and Oddmunn Farbregd at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim made similar finds in the 1960s and ’70s. But the volume, variety, and age of artifacts emerging now eclipses much of what has been found before.

Finstad was sucked into the world of ice patch archaeology in 2006 when a local man living in Lom brought the grubby remains of a shoe into his office. He and Pilø were unsure how old it could really be. Though tattered, it was recognizably a shoe. Then the radiocarbon dating analysis came in. “It was 3,400 years old,” recalls Finstad, “so really that was kind of an eye-opener.”

In the years since, Finstad and his colleagues have dedicated themselves to ice patch archaeology, turning up literally thousands of objects. On the latest three-night expedition alone, 200 or so items were found by the team — an exceptional tally for fieldwork lasting just half a week.

The “wrenches” puzzle him. His hunch is they have something to do with transport or the harnessing of horses. The mystery might be solved by asking members of the public what they think — an approach that has been successful in the past. To that end, the wrenches may be publicized on the team’s “Secrets of the Ice” social media pages. Their followers enjoy making guesses about what purpose enigmatic objects once served, says Finstad: “And sometimes quite good guesses, so that’s an interesting way to try to involve people’s knowledge.”

The Norwegians’ finds have revealed how adept prehistoric and medieval people were at hunting, and how accustomed they clearly were to traveling in the mountains. Far from being inhospitable terrain rarely traversed in bygone eras, the mountains were clearly places of great economic importance. And the more the ice melts, the deeper we delve back into this past, says Finstad. “History melts out in reverse.”

Finstad has seen for himself remarkable change in the national parks around Lom in recent years. He is troubled by the idea that the mountains he loves may one day be bereft of ice. Not only are the ice patches a visual feature of the mountains, they also provide water to farms in the area. And they offer shelter to reindeer who escape to the mountainsides during the summer. The deer would otherwise be plagued with insects down in the valleys. Snow and ice camouflages other animals hunted by top predators, including birds of prey. The cycle of melting — and freezing again — benefits the plants and forests here. Ice is part of the entire mountain ecosystem. Its loss will not just be devastating for archaeology, but for life itself in this place. The same story will be repeated along many other mountain ranges all over the world.

For Finstad, his work is far from over. He plans to keep coming back, year after year, rescuing fragments of humanity’s past. But for the foreseeable future, the mountains will continue to transform around him. He says that while he does not engage in climate change “activism” himself, he has no doubts about why the mountains are changing: “The planet is warming because of too much CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s human-made,” he says. “To imagine that my grandchildren will walk up here in a completely different landscape, I think that’s really, really sad.”

As he speaks, the warm sunlight of an August afternoon streams through the window. Finstad gestures to the mountaintops, where that same heat is bearing down on once-proud stacks of age-old ice, forcing them to drip away to nothing.

“It should be glaciers,” he says. “It should be snow up here.”

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.

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